Saúl Armendáriz, a gay amateur wrestler from El Paso, rises to international stardom after he creates the character Cassandro, the “Liberace of Lucha Libre.” In the process, he upends not just the macho wrestling world, but also his own life.
Roger Ross Williams, the director of Cassandro, a biopic of the Lucha Libre exotico Saul Armendariz (played by an exuberant Gael Garcia Bernal), skips the razzle-dazzle and pizzaz of the wrestling ring for a studied approach. Williams has a documentary background and knows the value of the accumulated soft caress over a bear hug to win viewers over.
Exoticos are flamboyant, effeminate male wrestlers who perform in a kind of Greco-Roman drag, and as semi-villains, are never allowed to win. Armendariz transition from masked luchador “El Topo” (a sly reference to the Mexican surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky) to “Cassandro”, an openly queer unmasked exotico who wins, coincidentally brackets nicely the time period of the early gay/LGBT rights movement of the late 1970’s-1980’s. Further reflecting the kitschy gay aura- his luchador nombre is slightly adapted from a popular Mexican telenovela- Kassandra. Cassandro is the male version. The classical Greek connotations of a truth teller ignored by society can’t be ruled out either.
Inverting the fight movie cliches is Cassandro’s trainer, Sabrina (Roberta Collindrez). She’s a woman and a lesbian, a soft invention of the biographical fact. Saul was trained by another openly gay exotico, Pimpinella Escarlata.
Bernal emphasizes all of Saul’s vulnerabilities, turning them into strengths, particularly his tender relationship with his mother, Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa), who accepts his gayness unconditionally. She may worry about Saul’s exposure to the queer haters, but outside homophobic slurs hurled from the spectators, which makes Saul try harder, he’s not in any real harm. Saul is a dutiful son, who mends clothes for her home laundry service and accepts her occasional need to prostitute herself to bring in money. The two love to ride together on his motorcycle, Yocasta hugging him dearly. They share a vision of eventually living in a bigger house in the better part of town.
Cassandro’s wrestling style is part Robin Williams and Lucille Ball. He tickles, slapstick’s, then pins them. He disarms opponents by being himself. It’s comedy mixed with a little poetry, the artful movement, the well honed jab.
Though there is a Rocky template being followed, the script written by Williams and David Teague, doesn’t lean into the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. The first half of Cassandro is shot with a shallow focus that emphasizes the gritty drama happening. In the second half, as Cassandro wins and gets more popular, the focus opens up and the sets get snazzier.
There’s a hidden joke about the virtues and better production values that fame brings here. Those who dismissed him, readily adopt him once he starts making them money. Yep, definitely an inside joke being slyly played out.
Maybe the seedy business of Lucha Libre is being whitewashed? Stiil, it wins everyone over. Like wrestling, it’s best to take Cassandro for what it is.
Cassandro gets a 3,5 out of 5 or a B+. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.
- Roger Ross Williams
- David Teague
- Gael García Bernal
- Roberta Colindrez
- Perla De La Rosa
- Yibran Asuad
- Sabine Hoffman
- Escape Artists
- Panorama Global
- January 20, 2023(Sundance)
- September 15, 2023(United States)